On most campuses, the chief business manager, now most often called “CFO” is not a very popular person. If college life was viewed as the equivalent of one big party (and for some it is), then the CFO is the guy or gal who takes the punch bowl away when everyone is having fun. He/she is the “No” person on campus, telling people that this or that aspiration cannot be met out of current resources.
Actually, I like most CFO’s. They are voices of sanity, pushing for efficiency and cost containment; at least putting some brakes on the near infinite spending requests of senior administrators, faculty, students, alumni, and others who populate the campus. As college costs rise but doubts about their benefits grow, it is the CFO’s job to bring collegiate aspirations in line with economic reality, a daunting task to be sure.
It was with considerable interest that I read that The Chronicle along with Moody’s Investor Service had surveyed a large number of CFO’s on their sense of campus fiscal affairs. Most were moderately pessimistic about university finances, since the recovery from the downturn is as slow in coming to universities as it is to the whole economy. But what interested me most was their solution to the problem. When asked what one thing they would recommend to ease financial stresses on campus if there were no consequences to their actions, a huge plurality (38 percent) favored increasing teaching loads for faculty–double the number that suggested raising tuition. If you add those advocating ending tenure (17 percent), a majority of respondents thought the key to cost reduction was related to changing working conditions for faculty.
John C. Nelson of Moody’s put it well regarding faculty productivity: “That is the last big area where there are really material efficiencies” to be gained. While I believe there are some big savings obtainable by reducing bloat in other areas–especially the administrative bureaucracy, the CFO’s and Nelson make a good point. I recently opined in columns in The Austin American-Statesman and The Wall Street Journal that the University of Texas at Austin could cut tuition fees in half if they just increased teaching loads for most faculty with low teaching loads so that on average they teach perhaps 75 students a semester–not an onerous burden in my judgment (this was based on an analysis of data reluctantly released by the UT administration.) The CFO/Nelson/Vedder conclusions are simple–we need to address the work load of the faculty.
In professions like architecture, medicine, or accounting, practitioners typically show up for work by nine in the morning and work to after five in the afternoon with a short lunch break, increasing their hours during busy periods (e.g., medical emergencies for physicians, tax season for accountants). They take three weeks or so of vacation a year. In short, their work schedule resembles that of blue-collar workers, non-professional office staff, and even most government workers.
Why shouldn’t professors be held to the same standard? Sure, they need to be out of their offices to teach classes and occasionally to attend scholarly meetings (most of which are largely expensive anachronisms in this day of electronic dissemination of knowledge), and also to attend meetings (of which there are vastly too many owing to our peculiar system of “shared governance”). Rarely these days do they need to be in the library, given advances in the online availability of scholarly resources. Yet, the typical faculty member at a moderately high-quality university spends, I suspect, no more than 10 hours a week in her/his office–often for only 35 weeks a year.
Faculty argue this is an uninformed, narrow-minded perception. After all, they need time to read, to think great thoughts and to research great ideas, the dissemination of which advances Western Civilization (or, more politically correct, life on Planet Earth). There are two problems with this. First, a large proportion of academic research, especially outside the hard sciences, is about trivial issues of little importance that few persons care about. Second, the evidence suggests a majority of faculty members publish either zero or one academic paper a year, and researchers such as Jeffrey Litwin have found that the median cost per article at major research universities exceeds $72,000. Regardless, many faculty members nonetheless benefit from the general reductions in teaching loads that have occurred over the years.
While high-tech solutions to rising college costs involving Internet education are very promising, a huge step toward restoring college affordability can be had by one simple solution: Ask the faculty to teach more.